HIDALGO, RGV – When a Rio Grande Valley irrigation district threatened to hire private security guards to protect its riverside pump station from vandalism and theft, Border Patrol intervened.

A watchtower manned 24/7 and an old armed personnel carrier were immediately positioned right next to the Rio Grande in Hidalgo. Straightaway, the water district noticed a big reduction in undocumented immigrants crossing the river and no vandalism to its property.

“We told Border Patrol we were going to put lights on the river, a fence on the Mexican side of the border wall and bring in a private security firm. It did the trick,” said Othal Brand, Jr., general manager of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3.

“Border Patrol acted immediately. They put in this old tank and the watchtower, which is manned 24 hours a day, and now we are not getting any one crossing at this point on the river.”

Brand said illegal crossings rose sharply once Border Patrol announced it was going to introduce furloughs as a cost-cutting measure. He said that in nine years of involvement with HCWID No. 3 he has never seen much vandalism or theft at the pump station. In recent months, however, that changed. “We are concerned about the safety of our employees and the possibility of our pumps being damaged. We cannot tolerate either.”

Brand said the success of the watchtower, which has only been operating for a couple of weeks, has encouraged him to clear space and lay a concrete pad for a second watchtower, around a bend in the river, just upstream from the first one. “Border Patrol would be pleased if we built a pad and an all-weather road. We are considering it,” he said.

It is not just the safety of water district employees Brand is concerned about. Employees with the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are currently building a 2,500 feet rock embankment near HCWID No. 3’s pump house to protect against soil erosion. Brand said he has been concerned for their safety too. “NRCS is real happy the watchtower is here. There was a lot of activity going on,” Brand said.

A staff member with NRCS, who did not want to be named, concurred. “The immigrants that come across on the boats were quite brazen. They would wave at us before scattering. We had had to stop our trucks so we did not crush them. We would have one wave after another,” the employee said.

Brand said Border Patrol “loves” the new rock embankment because the brush has been cleared and their officers have clear visibility when a boat is bringing immigrants across. “Border Patrol has told me, they wish all the whole of the river was like this,” Brand said.

Brand said the rock embankment could be extended upstream. A neighbor of HCWID No. 3, farmer Jim Pollock, would like to have a rock embankment and a watchtower to deter illegal crossings, Brand said. The rock embankment project came about thanks to a grant from the federal government. It is a 75-25 arrangement, with 75 percent of the funds for the $2 million project coming from the federal government. Ironically, the 24,000 tons of rocks are being imported from Mexico.

Brand said the rock embankment is needed because erosion on outside curve of the river was costing the water district about five feet of embankment a year. “We calculate that we have about five acres of land on the Mexican side of the river. There has been a lot of erosion over the years and it just accelerated after the floods of 2010. We calculate we only have about 12 to 15 years left before we lose all the dirt next to our pump house. We had to do this project. We had to protect the integrity of the embankment from erosion,” Brand said.

Asked if American citizens might find it strange for an irrigation district manager to be proposing a fence on the Mexican side of the border wall, Brand said all the irrigation districts in the Valley wanted to be on the north side of the border wall. “We all wanted to be behind the border wall but none of us are. We are in no man’s land. It is our version of a demilitarized zone,” Brand said.

Brand also had a message for those who argue that the border is already secure. “Anybody that tells you everything is fine along the river, they don’t live here. They don’t know. They don’t have a clue,” Brand said.